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Recordings & Discussions of Cantatas: Cantatas BWV 1-50 | Cantatas BWV 51-100 | Cantatas BWV 101-150 | Cantatas BWV 151-200 | Cantatas BWV 201-224 | Cantatas BWV Anh | Order of Discussion

Cantata BWV 154
Mein liebster Jesus ist verloren
Discussions - Part 2

Continue from Part 1

Discussions in the Week of February 5, 2006

John Pike wrote (February 4, 2006):
BWV 154 - Introduction

As we proceed with our chronological survey of Bach's cantatas, in order of composition, the cantata for discussion this week (beginning 5th February 2006) is Cantata BWV 154 "Mein liebster Jesus ist verloren" ("My dearest Jesus is lost"

Basic Information

Event in the Lutheran church calendar:
Cantata for the 1st Sunday after Epiphany

Readings: Epistle: Romans 12: 1-6; Gospel: Luke 2: 41-52.
See: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Read/Epiphany1.htm

Composed: Leipzig, 1724
1st performance: January 9, 1724 - Leipzig
2nd performance: 1736-1737 - Leipzig
Text: Martin Jahn (Mvt. 3); Luke 2: 49 (Mvt. 5); Christian Keymann (Mvt. 8); Anon (Mvts. 1, 2, 4, 6, 7)
See: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Lib/Keymann.htm

Short Commentary

By Klaus Hofmann, from the liner notes to the album 'J.S. Bach: Cantatas Vol. 17', conducted by Masaaki Suzuki (BIS, 2001) [7]:

The cantata for the 1st Sunday after Epiphany was first heard at a church service in Leipzig on 9th January 1724, a week after Schau, lieber Gott, wie meine Feind. It was probably performed on several other occasions during the next twenty-five years; from later additions to the pans we know for sure that there was at least one further performance around 1737. On the Feast of the Epiphany, 6th January 1724, Bach had presented the cantata Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen, a work with a magnificent opening chorus and requiring a full complement of wind and brass players in the orchestra - in other words a piece that used all the available forces. For the cantata the following Sunday, just three days later, he again practised restraint: again he did without a solo soprano, again he limited himself to a small orchestra although he does call for two oboi d'amore in addition to the strings - and again he seems to go easy on his choir, asking them only to sing chorales (probably these were sightread when would he have had the opportunity to rehearse?). Bach's music, however, gives no idea of any such pragmatic limitations.

The text of the cantata (again the identity of the author is unknown to us) refers to the Gospel reading for that day, Luke 2, verses 41-52. This depicts an episode in Jesus's life known as the 'Twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple', which in those days would have been as familiar as the Christmas story itself to a Christian who was well versed in the Bible; this episode is frequently portrayed in the fine ans. As was the custom among pious Jews, Mary and Joseph - together with Jesus and their friends and relatives - made an annual pilgrimage to celebrate the Feast of the Passover at the Temple in Jerusalem. On the way home they suddenly notice that the boy is missing; in desperation they look for him and eventually find him back in the Temple in Jerusalem, deep in theological argument with the learned doctors and, when his parents arrive, surprised that they had been looking for him: 'wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business', he asks them.

The cantata makes the story topical: it takes up motifs and moods, but transports the events to the personal realm of experience of the believer. The three arias represent three stages in the story: losing - searching - finding. The opening aria from the tenor, 'Mein liebster Jesus ist verloren' ('My dearest Jesus is lost'), is a despairing lament about loss, full of painfully sighing suspensions in the first violin and then in the vocal line, which also contains expressive rising sixths and is shot through with pathos-laden pauses. This all takes place above the insistent tread of a strongly chromatic basso ostinato. A distant rumble of thunder is heard in the strings at the words 'o Donnerwort in meinen Ohren' ('Oh thunderous word in my ear') - Bach's music is saying: 'Jesus is lost disaster is nigh', nothing less. The subsequent recitative adheres to this attitude, and not until we reach the chorale (Martin Jahn, 1661) do things take a positive turn with its words of expectation and hope - a trend maintained by the alto aria 'Jesu, laß dich finden' ('Jesus, let yourself be found'), a warm-hearted, song-like piece of great charm and sincerity. As so often when Bach uses the oboe d'amore, 'love' is the emotion with which the movement is concerned. The unusual instrumental forces used for the basso continuo are also of importance. Bach assigns this to the violins and viola, and later added a part for harpsichord (it is unclear whether this was done in 1724 or for a later performance), but the cellos, violone, bassoon and organ are silent. This decision has to do with the text and the content: in Bach's music, movements without a heavyweight basso continuo line are found especially when the subject matter is purity and innocence; the best-known (but by no means only) example is the aria 'Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben' ('For love my saviour would die') from the St. Matthew Passion.

The crucial part of the cantata is the fifth movement, the arioso 'Wisset ihr nicht, daß ich sein muß in dem, das meines Vaters ist' ('Wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business'; Luke 2, verse 49). It is assigned to the bass, the voice that plays the role of Jesus in the Passions. The strictly imitative, often canonic movement suggests that here some thing compelling, something necessary is being accomplished; Jesus steps forth on the way that has been ordained for him, The following recitative makes it clear: the temple, the house of God and the service of God are our place too; there we may find Jesus and experience him through words and sacrament..

The third aria, the duet 'Wohl mir, Jesus ist gefunden' ('Happy for me that I have found Jesus'), is filled with the expression of effusive joy. Its setting as a duet retains something of the old musical Bible story tradition; the alto may represent Mary and the tenor Joseph. Of course, however, Bach and his text author were alluding to Christians of their own era the eighteenth century. Bach provided a broad, lively setting of the joyful, heartfelt aria about Jesus being found again, and the profession that it contains 'Ich will dich, mein Jesu, nun nimmennehr lassen...' ('I would wish never to leave thee, my Jesus') is emphasized by a particularly dense imitative section. The chorale verse 'Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht' (Christian Keymann, 1658) confirms this statement in a simple, beautifully flowing setting..

Useful Information

Link to texts, translations, details of scoring, references, provenance, commentary, vocal score, music examples, and list of known recordings: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV154.htm

Link to previous discussions: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV154-D.htm

Chorales used in this cantata

Bach used two chorale melodies in this cantata:
1. Werde munter, mein Gemüth with the text Jesu, meiner Seelen Wonne. See:
CT: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Texts/Chorale023-Eng3.htm
CM: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/CM/Werde-munter.htm
2. Meinen Jelaß ich nicht. See:
CT: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Texts/Chorale054-Eng3.htm
CM: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/CM/Meinen-Jesum-lass-ich-nicht.htm

Music

Streamed over the internet, it is possible to hear Leusink's recording of the complete cantata [5] and MIDI files of movements 3 and 8 from Greentree: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Mus/BWV154-Mus.htm
Please note that the link to Harnoncourt's recording [3] is not working.

You can listen to short examples from other recordings through the links to Amazon provided at the Recordings page.

I look forward to reading your comments about this cantata and about the available recordings.

Douglas Cowling wrote (February 5, 2006):
John Pike wrote:
< As we proceed with our chronological survey of Bach's cantatas, in order of composition, the cantata for discussion this week (beginning 5th February 2006) is Cantata BWV 154 "Mein liebster Jesus ist verloren" ("My dearest Jesus is lost" >
What is fascinating about the layout of this cantata is that it operates on two allegorical levels. Although it does not retell the biblical story, the tenor, alto and bass clearly represent, on one level, Joseph, Mary and Jesus. On another level, the tenor and alto are also the Believing Souls searching for Christ which we encounter so often in Bach's works. The bass is the Saviour. The most extraordinary moment is the arioso in which the bass sings the "dictum", the scriptural words of the 12 year old boy, Jesus, but in the voice of the adult Christ of the Passions!

An extraordinary literary and musical tour de force!

Scott Sperling wrote (February 5, 2006):
Text in Cantata 154

The Readings for the First Sunday after Epiphany, for which Cantata BWV 154 was written, are Romans Romans 12: 1-6 and Luke 2: 41-52. The text for Cantata BWV 154 concerns itself with the Reading in Luke. In the Luke passage, an interesting event of Jesus' childhood is recounted. When Jesus was twelve years old, the Holy Family (with other family members and acquaintances) journeyed to Jerusalem for a feast-day. Upon their return, the group walked a whole day before they discovered that Jesus was not among them. Joseph and Mary returned to Jerusalem to look for Jesus, and found Him after three days, in the Temple, listening to and answering questions posed to Him by the teachers of the Law. When Mary asked Him why He caused them such anxiety by remaining behind, Jesus answered, "Why did you need to seek me? Didn't you know I would be about my Father's business?"

I must say I was quite surprised at the librettist's handling of this Reading. I reviewed the Readings before I listened to the Cantata for the first time. After reviewing the Readings, and then seeing that the title of the Cantata is "Mein liebster Jesus ist verloren" ("My dear Jesus is lost"), I expected the words to be spoken by Mary in the Cantata. So I was quite surprised to hear the Tenor voice in Mvt. 1 Aria. (I suppose the Tenor could have been in the character of Joseph, but one thinks more of Mary expressing herself, than Joseph. In fact, in the Bible, there are no direct quotes from Joseph, whereas there are many from Mary). In any case, the singer in Mvt. 1 is neither Mary nor Joseph. It is a common Christian, feeling that Jesus is lost to him. In fact, it seems that the singer is reading the passage from Luke, and that the Reading causes him to reflect upon his own relationship to Jesus. He has come to the conclusion: "Mein liebster Jesus ist verloren" ("My dear Jesus is lost"). And then, "O Wort, das mir Verzweiflung bringt... O Schwert, das durch die Seele dringt, O Donnerwort in meinen Ohren" ("O Word, that brings me despair... O Sword, that pierces my soul, O thunderous Word in my ears"). Note the emphasis on "Word": it is the Word of God that is "piercing his soul" ("...durch die Seele dringt..."). This is a reference to Hebrews 4:12: "For the Word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart." The Word of God, through this story where Jesus is lost to Mary and Joseph, "discerns the thoughts and intents of the heart" of the singer, and so the singer feels that Jesus is lost to him.

And why is Jesus lost to him? This we find in Mvt. 4 Alto Aria (if I may be allowed to skip ahead): "Jesu, lass dich finden; lass doch meine Sunden keine dicke Wolken sein... Wo du dich zum Schrecken willst fur mich verstecken. Stelle dich bald wieder ein!" ("Jesus, let yourself be found; let not my sins be thick clouds... such that You Yourself, to my horror, will for me be hidden. Reveal Yourself again soon!"). It is the Christian's sins that causes him/her to feel that Jesus is lost.

Let me just note here, that this event in Jesus' life, where He is lost to His family for three days, can be seen as foreshadowing the time after the crucifixion and before the resurrection. Note well, it is "three days" that Jesus is lost to His family. One can imagine the disciples of Christ, during the three days after the crucifixion, expressing the same sort of despair as expressed in the first four movements of this Cantata. Jesus is lost to them. How can they now be saved?

Mvt. 2 Tenor Recitative is a meditation on the destitution the Christian feels when he perceives that Jesus is lost to him: "...Kein Ungluck kann mich so empfindlich ruhren, als wenn ich Jesum soll verlieren" ("No tragedy can disturb me to the core, as would the loss of Jesus"). Mvt. 3 Chorale expresses what Jesus means to his life: "Jesu, mein Hort und Erretter; Jesu, meine Zuversicht; Jesu, starker Schlangentreter; Jesu, meines Lebens Licht!" ("Jesus my refuge and deliverer; Jesus, my confidence; Jesus, strong serpent-trampler; Jesus, my life's light"). Thus, we can understand the Christian's strong desire to "find" Jesus again: "Komm, ach komm, ich warte dein. Komm, o liebstes Jesulein!" ("Come, O Come, I wait for You. Come, my dear Jesus").

The Christian reads on in the passage in Luke, and gets to the place where Jesus is found in the House of God: "Wisset ihr nicht, dass ich sein muss in dem, das meines Vaters ist?" ("Didn't you know I would be about my Father's business?"). This is the text for Mvt. 5 Bass Aria, and this is the turning point in the Cantata. The Christian again hears the Word of God speaking to Him, this time in this passage, revealing to him where Jesus can be found: in the House of God. We hear the Christian's response to this in Mvt. 6 Tenor Recitative: "Mein Jesu, mein getreuer Hort, lasst durch sein Wort, sich wieder trostlich horen" ("My Jesus, my faithful refuge, lets me through His Word, hear Him again and be comforted"). The Word of God spurs him to get up, and rejoin the fellowship of saints, to return to the House of God: "Auf, Seele, mache dich bereit! Du musst zu ihm in seines Vaters Haus, hin in den Tempel ziehn; da lasst er sich in seinem Wort erblicken" ("Up, soul, get ready! You must go to Him in His Father's house, enter into the Temple; there He reveals Himself in His Word").

Mvt. 7 is an Aria, by both the Tenor and Alto, on the joy of finding Jesus again: "Wohl mir, Jesus ist gefunden" ("How happy I am, Jesus is found!"). The Cantata concludes, in Mvt. 8 Chorale, with a resolution: "Meinen Jesum lass ich nicht" ("My Jesus, leave I not"). This resolution reflects the sentiment: "If Jesus is not to be found, guess who moved!" It is our wandering that causes Jesus be lost to us. As Jesus said to Mary (to paraphrase): "Why are you searching for me? I'm right where you should expect me to be!"

Scott Sperling wrote (February 5, 2006):
Cantata 154 - A Puzzlement

I have the Suzuki [7] and Koopman [4] recordings of this Cantata (no others), and I find Suzuki's rendering of the 3rd and 4th movements quite puzzling; so much so, that it renders the Suzuki recording unlistenable for me.

The first through fourth movements depict a Christian for whom Jesus is lost. The angst of the first and second movements is well depicted in the Suzuki recording [7], but the third movement is taken (what sounds to me to be) "forte". The singing of it sounds triumphant, yet the text depicts longing for Jesus with sorrow. Contrast this with the Koopman recording [4]. Mr. Koopman takes the movement "mezzo-piano" (I would say) and coaxes the choir to sound hesitant, and longing. It's marvelous conducting, in my opinion.

The fourth movement, itself, is a puzzlement to me. It speaks of a Christian's sins obstructing (like a thick cloud) her from Jesus, and also of the fear of Jesus being hidden from her. And yet, Bach wrote the movement in a major key, with a somewhat "jaunty" accompaniment. The contrast between the major-key music, and the "minor-key" text (if I may be allowed to express it in those terms), would make this movement (I should think) difficult to conduct. Mr. Suzuki [7], in my opinion, fails the test. He renders it at a somewhat fast tempo, and the movement sounds triumphant, and full of joy, peace, and happiness. The music forms quite a contrast with the text being sung. This movement by Mr. Suzuki really ruins the whole recording for me, because it is so out-of-sync with the text. Mr. Koopman [4], though, does an admirable job. His tempo is slower than Mr. Suzuki's, and the singer conveys some of the despair and longing found in the text.

I am curious about other people's opinions about these two movements, and about how other conductors render these two movements.

Douglas Cowling wrote (February 5, 2006):
Scott Sperling wrote:
< I must say I was quite surprised at the librettist's handling of this Reading. I reviewed the Readings before I listened to the Cantata for the first time. After reviewing the Readings, and then seeing that the title of the Cantata is "Mein liebster Jesus ist verloren" ("My dear Jesus is lost"), I expected the words to be spoken by Mary in the Cantata. So I was quite surprised to hear the Tenor voice in Mvt. 1 Aria. (I suppose the Tenor could have been in the character of Joseph, but one thinks more of Mary expressing herself, than Joseph. In fact, in the Bible, there are no direct quotes from Joseph, whereas there are many from Mary). In any case, the singer in Mvt. 1 is neither Mary nor Joseph. It is a common Christian, feeling that Jesus is lost to him. >
I didn't notice that the words of Mary were given to the tenor. It's interesting that Bach avoids turning the story into a mini-oratorio by quoting scripture directly, but rather allows the narrative to be the theological platform for another allegory of the Faithful Soul and Christ (another example would be "Wachet Auf").

It's noteworthy that the only scriptural "dictum" from the actual Gospel is the beginning of the bass aria which stands at the centre of the cantata. Thus we have the souls searching for Christ in the first four movements and following him in the final three (four if you count the second half of the duet). The first half is dominated by B minor and A major. In the bass aria, the tonalities pivot to D major.

Something of the same symmetry occurs in "Wachet Auf!" where the opening duet anticipating Christ is in the relative minor and the second celebrating his arrival is in the dominant.

Neil Halliday wrote (February 6, 2006):
Scott Sperling wrote:
>"The fourth movement, itself, is a puzzlement to me. It speaks of a Christian's sins obstructing (like a thick cloud) her from Jesus, and also of the fear of Jesus being hidden from her. And yet, Bach wrote the movement in a major key, with a somewhat "jaunty" accompaniment"<.
The solution to this puzzle, I think, is to work backwards from Bach's musical setting, and interpret the text from there.

As Thomas Braatz noted in the previous discussions, Dürr has pointed out that the lack of the normal basso continuo signifies, in this case, the innocence/purity of nearness to Jesus; it is the purity and joy of the attainment of this state (closeness to Jesus) described in the first and last lines of the text: "Jesus let (me) find you, .... reveal yourself again soon", that Bach is emphasizing, rather than the horror of the thick clouds of sin that threaten to hide Jesus, alluded to in the central lines of the text.

Hence we have a graceful A major melody in 12/8 time, minus the normal basso continuo, but with unison upper strings and gambolling oboes d'amore, expressing the blessedness of being close to Jesus. Nevertheless, listen for the incursions into minor keys, and especially note the dissonant, momentary B flats (of the diminished 7th) on the 1st oboe, at the second mention of "Schrecken" (bar 30), clearly heard in the Rilling recording [2].

I agree that Suzuki [7], in this movement, is less pleasing than Koopman [4], and most of the other recordings for that matter, but for the simple reason that he (Suzuki) loses some of the grace that is attendant on a slower tempo. The charm of the instruments makes dealing with Ann Murray's vocal vibrato relatively easy in Rilling' recording [2]. (Rilling has no keyboard instrument).
__________

As for the other movements, I like Harnoncourt's [3] (and Koopman's [4]) `adagio' treatment of the opening tenor aria, but with the criticism of the former's excessive weakening of the 2nd note under the slur in the 1st violins, and the latter's weakness in various parts of the violins' phrases (is there only one 1st violin?). Rilling's vigorous performance [2], while it has his usual instrumental strength and clarity, lacks the depth of feeling attained by the more measured performances of either Harnoncourt or Koopman, IMO.

While noting the occurrence of interesting canon between the bass strings and voice, over the course of the bass arioso `vox Christi' movement, I'm not entirely happy with any of the continuo realisations heard in the recordings of this continuo only movement.

The A,T duet expresses unabashed joy, and I enjoy Rilling's performance [2] with its crisp, punchy continuo line. The harpsichord may be a distraction in the Suzuki recording. Others have commented on the attributes of the voices in the various recordings.

Julian Mincham wrote (February 6, 2006):
Scott Sperling wrote:
>"The fourth movement, itself, is a puzzlement to me. It speaks of a Christian's sins obstructing (like a thick cloud) her from Jesus, and also of the fear of Jesus being hidden from her. And yet, Bach wrote the movement in a major key, with a somewhat "jaunty" accompaniment"<.
Neil Halliday wrote:
< The solution to this puzzle, I think, is to work backwards from Bach's musical setting, and interpret the text from there. >
These comments raise issues of great interest (at least, to me). One is frequently surprised, not so say amazed at Bach's choice of major or minor key as it is, as in this case, not what one would expect. An interesting 'game' which one can play when approaching a 'new'cantata (or even revisiting one not heard for some time) is to read the text and to guess how Bach will set it--e.g. as chorus, recit, aria duet, in major or minor, with what instruments etc.One is usually WRONG. and that is particularly true of his choice of modes. In fact I believe that Bach's choice of maj/min did not depend only on the text for that particular movement. Frequently he took the overall structure of the work into account (this is perhaps more true of the second than the first Leipzig cycles). Thus a work which may be predominantly minor might suddenly produce a major movement at a time of hope, affirmation, optimism, belief in faith etc etc. Quite frequently it is worth looking at the last aria in the work as it's setting often sheds light upon Bach's developmental thinking for the whole work.

It is also the case that Bach's unfailing optimism meant that he seldom, if ever, gives us a work of unremitting grief. He usually finds the light at the end of the tunnel and accentuates the positive and joyful implications of the text (as in the case of this cantata's 4th movement) whilst playing down more tragic elements. It's often a masterly balancing act--but in general, for JSB, optimism wins out over pessimism. (Quite extraordinary when one considers, as already mentioned in this discussion0 the continuous tragedy which dogged his life).

Incidently, Malcolm Boyd suggests that this cantata (or some movements of it) might have come from an earlier Weimar work but he does not offer evidence. Does anyone have any info on this??

Lastly the comments in the introduction about Bach's little use of the choir in this work because of the workload are interesting. There seems to be internal evidence of the fact that at heavy load periods (e.g. Christmas, Ney Year and Easter) he would take the pressure off the choir. However in the second cycle of chorale cantatas he couldn't do this--at least not until he broke the pattern after the first forty (the last one of which was BWV 1) Here he required the choir to sing at leat one big chorus in each work. He may have had practical matters in mind right from the start of the cycle because he began the first few by giving the (easier) cantus firmus line to different voices thus spreading the load. OF course he also frequently used trombones and cornets to double vocal lines as a backup.

John Pike wrote (February 6, 2006):
[To Douglas Cowling] When I first heard Suzuki's recording of this cantata [7] a few months ago, I was completely knocked over by that wonderful alto Arioso and also by the alto and tenor duet.

I have now listened to Harnoncourt [3], Rilling [2] and Leusink [5] as well. I feel Suzuki hits the right tempo for the opening movement. I feel Rilling's faster tempo is less effective in conveying the sense of loss. One of the other recordings (?which one from memory) also has a faster tempo for this opening movement. The alto (and soprano) vibrato is, for me, a recurring problem with Rilling's recordings and this is evident here as well. Otherwise, I enjoyed all the recordings. My top choice for this cantata would be Suzuki.

Douglas Cowling wrote (February 6, 2006):
Neil Halliday wrote:
< it is the purity and joy of the attainment of this state (closeness to Jesus) described in the first and last lines of the text: "Jesus let (me) find you, .... reveal yourself again soon", that Bach is emphasizing, rather than the horror of the thick clouds of sin that threaten to hide Jesus, alluded to in the central lines of the text. >
The clouds, thunder and lightning also suggest the Passion when the Gospels relate the sun was darkened. The clouds of sin covering the Sun of Righteousness is a common devotional device, most notably the breathtaking storm of "Sind Blitzen und Donner in Wolken verschwunden" in the Matthew Passion (BWV 244).

Thomas Braatz wrote (February 7, 2006):
Julian Mincham asked:
>>Incidently, Malcolm Boyd suggests that this cantata or some movements of it) might have come from an earlier Weimar work but he does not offer evidence. Does anyone have any info on this??<<
Go to the BCW, locate the Recordings page for BWV 154, find in the box at the top of the page the word "Provenance" and click on this link.

Julian Mincham wrote (February 7, 2006):
[To Thomas Braatz] Thomas Many thanks for this.

Neil Halliday wrote (February 8, 2006):
The tritone in 154/1

Here is an interesting article about the tritone (augmented fourth, or diminished fifth) in music: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augmented_fourth

The tenor aria of BWV 154 is not one of the many music examples mentioned, but a look at the score of 154/1 confirms that it might be a good example of music in which the unsettling effect of this interval is prominent.

Bradley Lehman wrote (February 8, 2006):
[To Neil Halliday] Sorry that this explanation has to be a bit technical....:

That Wikipedia entry is an accurate article, as far as the assumption of equal temperament goes for general theory. The tritone is exactly half the octave (geometrically), and its inversion is indeed the same size: the square root of 2.

But take out the assumption of equal temperament, or the rigid adherence to any keyboard temperament, and everything can shift dramatically on the way the tritones actually sound in music. Orchestras and a cappella vocal groups (at least in music of slow to medium speed) don't as a rule hit the tritones exactly where they would be in ET, but rather try to get it more consonant than that. Members of ensembles instinctively adjust their pitches slightly until they are better in tune with one another, on long sustained notes where there is opportunity to do so.

And switch to some milieu where the prevailing standard in pedagogy and practice is not equal temperament (an atonal system), but rather something more tonally focused, and the situation changes dramatically again. Take the example of 1/6 comma meantone (or the pedagogical 55-note division) that was the closest thing to a standard that 18th century Europe had. In that field of sounds, the tritone is an especially consonant-sounding and stable interval. It makes a pure sound that locks in: the interval 45/32.

To hear one on a harpsichord, which is a startling and valuable experience, set up a complete 1/6 comma regular temperament. Or, more directly and quickly, tune either of the following sequences of pure intervals (no tempering): C-G-D-F#, or C-E-B-F#. The resulting C to F# is one of these pure 45/32 tritones, and it sounds quite stable and harmonious. It rings out, loudly, as the notes reinforce one another.

Furthermore, the inversion of it -- F# up to the next C -- is not at all the same size, because we're nowhere near bisecting the octave C to C in the placement of that F#. F# up to C is 64/45, which is obviously a lot larger than 45/32.

A practical result: when playing basso continuo in 1/6 comma temperament, the dominant-7th chords in modulations sound especially consonant and stable themselves. The tritone in them locks in, and creates a big resonance. So do the fully-diminished 7th chords, for the same reason that the tritones in them are making pure intervals.

And playing simply that C-F# itself in isolation: the ear supplies a phantom pure D against both of them, making the harmony seem fuller than it actually is. It makes the C-F# interval seem like a 6-4-2 chord (in figured bass) all by itself, one of these stable 7th chords in inversion. The 45/32 tritone sounds like the two yet simpler intervals 9/8 (C to D pure) plus 5/4 (D to F# pure).

Notes about regular temperaments other than equal, including further remarks about 1/6: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~bpl/larips/meantone.html

The broader point: generic music theory is OK as far as the assumption of equal temperament goes. But, that's a huge "if". The only music that adheres absolutely rigidly to equal temperament is keyboard solo. And, it's mostly a 20th century athat those keyboards would be tuned as a rule in equal temperament. Up through the 19th, and some beyond that, tuners were still tuning artfully different balances of harmonies by ear, typically favoring the keys that are played more often than other keys. The obvious reason is that tonal music sounds better that way: more colorful and resonant.

The interchangeable-parts practice requiring equal temperament is one of the post-Industrial Revolution conceits: that it's generally more useful to be standardized than to put more specific and artful personality into the intonation. With easier travel and communications, performers can show up in a new city and know pretty much how the keyboard is going to sound, ahead of time. The sounds get averaged down to mediocrity, so theorists can control the general cases more easily, and so average musicians needn't think as much about fine issues of intonation as they would do at top levels of expertise. Wash it all down to a generally inoffensive standard. (And thereby wash a phenomenal amount of musical content right out of tonal compositions, but that's another story!) All transposition becomes interchangeable, whether it's key to key or venue to venue.

Take a composition that has a lot of diminished triads or diminished-7th chords in it: BWV 154 movement 1 has been mentioned as a good example. There are diminished-7th chords on most of the downbeats! I'm simply pointing out that that series of sounds--if played by an experienced ensemble who are listening to one another and tuning their intervals reasonably well--sounds less disturbing than the same music does playing a piano reduction in equal temperament. Diminished-7th chords are crunchy and somewhat unsettling in general, yes, but they're not as unsettling as it would seem in abstract analysis at the piano.

Another thing to keep in mind about BWV 154: due to the Chorton transposing situation, the original organist was playing/reading in A minor, not the B minor of the rest of the orchestra. Any colorful sounds coming from the organ continuo, due to temperament, are considerably milder in A minor than in B minor, playing through the harmonies of this piece. In character they're much more prickly if played in B minor, than the comparatively sorrowful sound (and more appropriate to the sung text!) played in A minor. [I've tested this empirically; and it's true whether one has accepted my research about a specific temperament or not! All of the reasonable unequal temperaments exhibit plenty more tension within B minor than they do in A minor, playing full chords like this.]

Again back to that Wikipedia article, the sentence: "The sound of the tritone is what lends the strong tendency towards resolution that is characteristic of the diminished and Dominant 7th chord." That's reversed if the ensemble is trying to play at or near the general sound of 1/6 comma. The tritones have a fairly strong tendency against resolution, because they're played at or near a simple pure interval. These 7th-chords are strong resonant shots in themselves, as a colorful stroke.

The expectation that they'd need to resolve forward, because of some allegedly "strong" dissonance in the tritone especially, is a 20th century conceit somewhat tied to the analytical assumption of equal temperament. And in real practice that ain't necessarily so! Hand the music to any good ensemble that is accustomed to the 18th century general rules (by taste and experience/training play the sharps a bit lower, and flats a bit higher, than one would find in ET), and the notion of especially-piquant diminished 7ths goes out the window.

Whether they're listening closely to the organ or not, and whatever temperament the organ is playing in, good string players will still try to get the harmonies as well in tune amongst themselves as they can do, chord by chord. The organ might either suggest some specific characters to the music (in an unequal temperament, as I personally believe is vital to Bach's art) or be noncommittally neutral (in equal); and then whatever the string players do with that information is up to their musicianship and listening skills.

Peter Smaill wrote (February 9, 2006):
The tritone in BWV 154/1 also reflects, I believe, the interval achieved in succesive notes in the final chorale to BWV 60, "O Ewigkeit du Donnerwort". Duerr also identifies the implicit interval as the "diabolicus in musicum".

I wonder too if others find the chorale setting in BWV 154 especially affecting , the chorale also known as "Werde munter" and familiar via BWV 147 as "Jesu , Joy". The tenor line here , bouncing back and foth across five tones, has the effect of emphasising the cadence at the end of the first strophe and there is, as in BWV 147, a lovely passing discord in the second part of the chorale.

Neil Halliday wrote (February 9, 2006):
Bradley Lehman wrote:
<"Take a composition that has a lot of diminished triads or diminished-7th chords in it: BWV 154 movement 1 has been mentioned as a good example. There are diminished-7th chords on most of the downbeats! I'm simply pointing out that that series of sounds--if played by an experienced ensemble who are listening to one another and tuning their intervals reasonably well--sounds less disturbing than the same music does playing a piano reduction in equal temperament. Diminished-7th chords are crunchy and somewhat unsettling in general, yes, but they're not as unsettling as it would seem in abstract analysis at the piano".>
I should have made it clear I was mostly referring to the striking tritone downward leaps in the continuo, eg, in the opening ritornello, A down to D#, and E down to A# (bass clef), repeated throughout the composition. These figures by themselves
(unaccompanied) are likely to sound striking in any reasonable temperament, given the chromatic nature of the continuo line.

Your point about a performance of the music of 154/1 given by the entire ensemble, accompanied with chords on a keyboard, sounding more jagged or more sorrowful depending on the keyboard's temperament - this is an interesting proposition indeed, well beyond the point I was making about the shape of the continuo line. Would the average listener be able to perceive such a change in the actual character of the music?

(BTW, one can play the continuo line on a pitch adjustable ET electric keyboard and sound in tune with the amazon samples of Harnoncourt [3] and Rilling [2]; I assume Harnoncourt and Rilling are both using ET keyboards).

-----

Peter draws attention to the lovely passing discord in the 4th bar from the end, of 154/3 (second beat of the bar), indeed reminding us of the harmony in "Jesu, Joy".

 

Continue on Part 3

Cantata BWV 154: Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements | Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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Last update: ýSeptember 8, 2011 ý14:33:55